Flunking Lunch

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FERGUSON AND KATZMAN FOR TIME

BRAND CONSCIOUS: the Selvidge Middle School in Ballwin, Mo. serves up pizza slices in its cafeteria every Thursday

If it's late November, then it's time for Turkey Day at Little Woods Elementary School in New Orleans, La. Each fall, for decades, students have dined on the same spread of turkey, Creole gravy, corn-bread dressing and sweet-potato pie. But this week they will add a few new rituals to their holiday meal. Some will poke and prod their turkey meat or smell it to check for rancidity; others plan to pass on the lunch altogether. Most everyone will try to banish the memory of last year's Turkey Day, which ended in a mass pilgrimage to the school nurse.

In all, about 100 students and teachers fell ill with various symptoms of vomiting, abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea; a handful were rushed to the hospital. The culprit? Clostridium perfringens, a bacterium that resides in the intestines of animals but is usually killed when meat is properly prepared. In a report titled "An Uninvited Guest at Turkey Day," state inspectors found that Little Woods' cooks did not monitor the temperature of the turkeys as they cooked. The officials also noted some other uninvited guests: an infestation of cockroaches in the kitchen. "It's bad enough that we have to think about safety when we send our kids to school," says Neketa Lacayo, who still quizzes her daughter Naiah McGruder, 9, nightly about what she eats in the school cafeteria. "When this happened, I wondered, Was [her lunch] something else I had to worry about?"


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Yes, parents, the worry list is now a little longer. Large-scale outbreaks of food poisoning from school meals have risen on average 10% each year, from 25 outbreaks in 1990 to 50 in 1999, sickening a total of 16,000 children across the country with everything from salmonella to hepatitis A, according to a report released by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) last spring. While undoubtedly unpleasant, most of those illnesses ran their course in a few days.

School lunches are also drawing scrutiny for posing long-term hazards to children's health. At a time when childhood obesity is skyrocketing — there has been an almost threefold jump in the number of overweight teens since the 1970s — some school cafeterias look little different from food courts at the local mall. Many serve burgers and pizzas rife with full-fat meats and cheeses or simply turn the prep work over to franchises like Burger King and Papa John's, which have a burgeoning side business in catering school meals. "If nothing changes, a generation will be having heart bypasses by the time they're 25," says Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "The school cafeteria is a toxic food environment."

That may be overstating the situation, but what is clear is that the cleanup is under way. Lawmakers in a dozen states have introduced bills to ban the sale of junk food in schools. Some districts have gone organic, while others bake fries and skin chicken. Anti-tobacco lawyers, who gave advice for a suit against McDonald's filed by a group of obese New York teens (see box), are threatening similarly aggressive actions against a school board near you. Congress is gearing up to take a hard look at school meals when it reauthorizes the $6.4 billion government-funded school-lunch program at the start of next year. The same three questions are on all of their plates: How to make school lunches safer? How to make them more wholesome? Trickiest of all, how to make children believe healthier meals can also make them happy?

The Cockroach Special

Let's put the problem in perspective: de-spite the percentage increase in the number of incidents, major food-poisoning outbreaks occurred in just 300 schools nationwide during the 1990s. So the chances of your child falling prey to a massive, Turkey Day — scale illness are still minuscule. But that doesn't mean you can relax. "Full outbreaks are just the tip of the tip of an iceberg," says Paul Mead, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's food-borne — and diarrheal-diseases branch. The vast majority of food-borne illnesses strike only a handful of children at a time, and symptoms are seldom reported to the school or a doctor, much less the CDC. But once infected, children are at much higher risk than healthy adults for developing complications.

In its report to Congress last spring, the GAO detailed a "patchwork structure" of school-food — safety regulations encumbered by red tape. The Food and Drug Administration and three separate agencies within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) share authority over school lunches. Yet none has the power to recall tainted foods. The ineptness of this bureaucracy was on display last month after 1.8 million lbs. of Wampler Foods turkey meat linked to listeria were distributed to schools as part of the National School Lunch Program. It took five days for officials to tell the Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg, Pa., that the Wampler turkey slices it had continued to serve at its salad bars were part of the recall.

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